If I could reach back in time six years — back to my former pregnant self— I’d first give her a hug. She’d need that. Then I’d sit with her on the couch, our unborn baby between us, and answer questions.
“Am I ruining my life?”
You’re building your life.
“Am I really ready for this?”
You’d never be fully ready.
“But like — shouldn’t I know who I am before trying to raise another human?”
Oh girl, where did you get a stupid idea like that?
Except I’d know exactly where she got the idea: from our own brain. From absorbing one too many sitcom plots, where moms were wise and accomplished and, you know, grown up.
At the time, I was barely a grown-up. Before the numbing shock of pregnancy, I knew myself as an ambitious future magazine editor who was going places. With my life plan tucked under one arm, and years of YM personality quizzes guiding the way, I was off to take on the world.
And then one day I peed on a plastic stick, and suddenly — zap. I knew nothing. I felt blank. I could only grasp one thing: There was a human growing inside of me, and I had absolutely nothing to offer.
No wisdom. No life experience. No freaking idea who I was or what I’d do. My entire identity was ripped away, and in its place I got a new one labeled “mother.” It felt heavier than I expected. It weighed on my head, my mind, like a costume that didn’t fit. Would this new identity hold me back? Swallow me alive? I hadn’t “found myself” yet — the mission of all 20-somethings traveling to Thailand, or moving to strange cities, or tripping out on mushrooms. What could I possibly offer this small human in this primitive stage of adulthood?
If my younger self said all those things — probably through tears (I cried a lot) — I would have told her:
Your baby doesn’t need your wisdom; that comes with time. Your baby doesn’t need your certainty or fully formed identity; that was always a ruse. A baby has a way of unstitching us, no matter how much we “figured out” beforehand.
But forget all that — forget what could have been or might have been or probably should have been. Forget what may or may not happen in the future, even. Right now you’re pregnant, and you haven’t figured yourself out, and it’ll totally all be fine. Better than fine.
In fact, you can (and will) use your new maternal perspective and experience to not only be a kick-ass parent, but to figure out who you are, as a totally separate individual.
To my former self, and all the other new, scared, unsure, totally lost moms out there, here’s a three-step action plan to being a good parent while still growing into yourself:
1. Take Care Of Yourself
If I’ve learned anything in my 20s, it’s this: “Figuring out who you are” is really just finding your best self — the perspective that helps you feel clear and grounded and you — and anchoring into it. It’s not figuring out who you should be or could be. It’s not something you uncover in a cave or ashram. It’s simply realizing who you’ve always been. And you’ll never figure that out if you don’t diligently take care of yourself — unwinding the messy thought patterns, feeding your body, feeding your soul.
We aren’t our best selves when we’re running on empty, ignoring our needs, and chronically putting ourselves at the bottom of a to-do list. That doesn’t help us, and it doesn’t help our kids. We’re nasty and miserable, stockpiling resentments along the way. So look after and out for yourself — even when it’s inconvenient and hard. Exercise. Find a therapist. Meditate. Start a yoga practice. Nurture your creative passions like you’d nurture a baby.
And don’t do these things in spite of your child, do these things for your child. Because when you’re healthy — physically, mentally, all of it — you can offer your best, most energetic, happiest self. You can model healthy behavior for him to mimic. It’s win-win.
Kids don’t need a martyr who bleeds herself dry for everything and everyone around her; kids need a compass. Lead the way. Take care of yourself the way you’d want your child to take care of himself, and everyone will benefit.
2. Don't Be An A**hole
Taking care of yourself will happen in steps — slowly in certain seasons, more difficult in others. But one thing you can start doing right this very minute — and arguably the most important — is to be kind to yourself. Those nasty remarks and self-defeatist attitudes firing off in your brain aren’t doing you any favors. “Finding yourself” isn’t a self-improvement project, it’s a self-awareness/self-loving/self-accepting process.
And, again, your kid will benefit from that inner directed kindness. How we talk to ourselves is how we talk to others, and how we talk to our children becomes how they talk to themselves. It’s really quite simple. The more love we send inward, the more love we can give out. Be less of an asshole to yourself, and you’ll be less of an asshole to everyone else. Period.
And luckily your maternal perspective can lend you a more gentle inner voice. A voice that would say things like —
“Don’t be scared, sweetheart, you’re safe.”
“I’m here; you’re okay.”
“I love you just as you are.”
Those are things I never thought to say to myself until I said them to my child — and meant it. I found myself easing my stress the same way I’d ease a small child in the same situation.
So be maternal toward yourself. Be kind. Forgiving. Compassionate. Not only will you be better off for it, but you’ll be a better parent, too.
3. Learn From Your Kid
One of the ways you figure yourself out is by getting outside of yourself and getting some perspective. And you, Pregnant Self, are about to meet your mirror.
In your child’s face, you’ll see your own facial expressions and impatient attitude. Every day is like a live-action reenactment of your worst habits — and which ones are yours will be upsettingly obvious. (Kids learn what’s normal by watching us, and so by watching our kids, we’re also seeing ourselves.)
You’ll see other things reflected, too. Long-forgotten unmet needs. Childhood wounds that haven’t quite healed. Your underlying motivations to be seen and heard and validated. They’re all there, shining out from your child’s eyes.
Our children can be powerful teachers if we pay attention.
I’m not saying motherhood is a zen path to self-enlightenment. The added responsibilities and stress — real stress, survival stress — can be all-consuming. Some years will be harder than others, and many days you’ll feel like a crappy, no good, can’t-hold-it-together failure. You’ll wonder if maybe it’s too hard to raise a child and grow up at the same time.
Don’t believe those thoughts. They’re lies. Because somewhere along the way, you’ll figure it out. Through all sorts of experiences and plot twists, you’ll develop an ease with yourself. You’ll discover all the ways you are exactly the parent your kid needs.
The craziest part? You’ll have this scary, inconvenient, heavy weight of “motherhood” to thank for it. All of it. Keep going. The good stuff is ahead.
Images: Courtesy of Michelle Horton